Edward Elgar – The Spirit of England, Op. 80
(b. 2 June 1857, Broadheath, Worcestershire – d. 23 February 1934, Worcester)
For soprano or tenor solo, mixed chorus and orchestra
1. The Fourth of August
2. To Women
3. For the Fallen
With Proud Thanksgiving
Elgar loved Germany. He often holidayed in Bavaria, and many of his most influential friends had been German; moreover, he was always very grateful to the German nation for promoting his music, especially The Dream of Gerontius. He was one of many who were incredulous that Britain found herself at war with Germany in August 1914. And worse still, his music was losing its popularity as Elgar’s style became more introverted and the heyday of Edwardian England faded in the light of war. Sir Thomas Beecham attended an all-Elgar concert during the war; when a friend commented on the small audience, “Where are Elgar’s friends?”, Beecham replied, “They’re all interned”.
Laurence Binyon was a young poet who worked at the British Museum. He published his first collection of poetry, The Winnowing Fan, in late 1914, and it caught the mood of the time. Binyon’s manager at the museum was Elgar’s friend Sidney Colvin, who suggested Elgar compose a war requiem based on the poems. Elgar agreed, selecting three poems that – to him – made a complete work that was not particularly jingoistic or triumphal.
Then the trouble began.
The first problem was a psychological one for Elgar. The first poem he selected – The Fourth of August – deals with thoughts engendered by Britain’s declaration of war. Most is unsurprising and fairly innocuous, except for these lines, which refer directly to Britain’s struggle arising out of Bismarck’s “Blut und Eisen”:
She fights the fraud that feeds desire on
Lies, in lust to enslave or kill,
The barren creed of blood and iron,
Vampire of Europe’s wasted will…
Elgar simply felt he could not set lines that called Germany “the fraud that feeds desire on lies”, or a “vampire”. So he left the first poem incomplete, finishing both the others in 1915.
Then he met the Cambridge composer Cyril Rootham, only to discover that he had completed a setting of For The Fallen that Novello & Co. had already published! Elgar realised just what this meant – the moment Elgar’s setting was published Rootham’s would almost certainly be eclipsed. So he withheld publication and performance of his own until 1916. To Women and For the Fallen were first performed on 3 May 1916 at Leeds, conducted by the composer, with Agnes Nicholls as soloist. In the event Cyril Rootham never forgave Elgar for this, and in the 1920s and 1930s was at the centre of an anti-Elgar faction at Cambridge University that included the Professor of Music, Edward Dent, and his successor, Patrick Hadley. The antagonism was such that the sensitive Elgar had difficulty in relating to fellow-composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – also a Cambridge graduate, but not one of the anti-Elgar faction – in the 1920s.
The first movement was still incomplete. It was not until Mach 1917 that he decided to finish it. He chose to use a self-quotation from The Dream of Gerontius – from the Demon’s Chorus – and described his views of the Germans as a ‘fallen intellect’ in a letter: “A lunatic asylum is, after the first shock, not entirely sad: so few of the patients are aware of the strangeness of their situation; most of them are placid & foolishly calm; but the horror of the fallen intellect – knowing what it once was & knowing what it has become – is beyond worlds frightful.”
The first performance of The Fourth of August was on 4 October 1917, conducted by Appleby Matthews in Birmingham Town Hall, with Rosina Buckman as the soloist. This seems to have been the first performance of the complete work as well.
For many years The Spirit of England had a poor reputation as jingoistic tub-thumping patriotism, and it was almost never performed. Then it was recorded in the 1970s and was recognized as an Elgarian masterpiece with hardly a nod toward jingoism. Perhaps the only passage that could be regarded as such begins at figure 9 in The Fourth of August when the German Demons (from Gerontius) appear, but this is the section that had given Elgar the most psychological difficulty anyway – and we might suspect that his heart wasn’t entirely aligned with the sentiment. The movement is well constructed, held together by its memorably soaring opening phrase.
To Women begins and ends with delicate impressionistic chords, but includes a chilling central section, wonderfully scored, that begins:
Swift, swifter than those hawks of war,
Those threatening wings that pulse the air…
It seems related to Elgar’s 1914 part-song Death On The Hills.
The First World War was the catalyst that led to the securing of voting rights for women in many countries – though not in Germany, where those rights had existed for some time – and Elgar seems to be acknowledging their cause.
For the Fallen is the core of the work. There are a few potential traps in the poem, major of which is the passage that begins, “They went with songs to the battle”. The temptation must have been great to include popular songs of the time, such as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary – in fact Cyril Rootham did just that in his own setting. But Elgar avoids it by using original music – a ghostly remembrance of a tune that cannot be identified, but which sounds ‘right’.
The poem itself (or one verse of it) has a life independent from The Spirit Of England, for it is regularly recited on 11 November each year at Remembrance Day services:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Elgar actually set “They shall not grow old” since he considered it more natural speech. Laurence Binyon did not object.
The climax is impressive, the music recalling the first movement, the words telling of the stars “moving in marches upon the heavenly plain” – until in typical Elgarian fashion everything collapses to the close:
To the end, to the end, they remain.
The Spirit of England is a major work of truly ‘occasional’ music that continues its composer’s development of style toward the chamber music and Cello Concerto of 1917-1919.
With Proud Thanksgiving
A major event of 1920 was the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall – Edwin Lutyens’ memorial to the fallen. Elgar was asked to adapt For The Fallen for outdoor performance by mixed chorus and military band so that it could be used at the ceremony. Typically, Elgar did not make a straight transcription, but instead rewrote large portions of it, particularly the “They shall not grow old” section. The following year he scored it for chorus and orchestra, and he conducted it at the Royal Albert Hall on 7 May to celebrate the jubilee of the Royal Choral Society. It is the orchestral version that is included here.
Phillip Brookes, 2021
For performance material please contact Novello, London.